#charityfail: Lung Cancer Edition

#charityfail… or is it?

I don’t want to rain down hard on the Lung Cancer Alliance. So I hope to use this example to show, yet again, why being edgy isn’t a good thing, if it lacks sincerity and relatability.

By now you may have seen this ad:

Apart from the whole cat-lovers-are-crazy-cardigan-wearing-women stereotype (let’s not trash one stigma while using another as a crutch), the ad certainly gets one’s attention. It’s supposed to be about taking down the stigma around lung cancer, because apparently everyone thinks only smokers get lung cancer, and therefore deserve it. It’s supposed to humanize lung cancer and show that it doesn’t discriminate.

Only it fell flat on its face because it made light of “deserving” to die. Apparently the campaign was supposed to come together with posters and the website making a more cohesive point. I’m not sure that even had all the elements come together as intended, this ad would be any less off the mark.

One thing that gets me is the idea that lung cancer fundraising and research is stymied by the widespread belief that lung cancer is somehow deserved. This is news to me. And even if this was a major barrier, stigma can be addressed in a genuine and direct way without trying so gosh darn hard to be edgy and gritty. See below:

(Also in my opinion mental health faces much stronger stigma than does cancer, and CAMH managed to make it the focus of a campaign much more successfully.)

If the idea was to remind folks that cancer doesn’t discriminate, it could have been done without calling for the death of a group of individuals. (No, they don’t call for the death of a group of individuals, but the largest text on the ad is “All cat lovers deserve to die” so they know they were trying to cause a reaction.)

Ever notice how the what-were-they-thinking campaigns are ones that tried to be edgy and just managed to rub folks the wrong way? Or came off like a teacher that’s trying too hard to be cool? Nonprofits do good work. They have the trust of their networks. You don’t need to go dumpster diving for knee-jerk reaction campaigns for attention. And you think a knee-jerk reaction is going to dissipate stigma and bring in donation dollars? Incite conversation about the campaign, yes. But convert that to action? Dubious.

In this case, I don’t feel like storming the Lung Cancer Alliance’s gates calling for an apology (as a cat lover, and as someone who’s lost family to cancer). Ken Wong, marketing professor at Queen’s University, was spot on in saying, “Nobody’s talking about the plight of cancer patients. Everybody is just talking about how offensive the ad is.” Laurie Fenton Ambrose of the Lung Cancer Alliance was apparently thrilled that the campaign garnered almost 100,000 on Tuesday.

Folks. Get with it. All press is good press? Give it a rest.  Although nowhere on the same scale of offensiveness, even the EU Commission worked out that it’s not just about getting people to talk about your organization, regardless if it’s a positive or negative light. Mostly I feel bad for the Lung Cancer Alliance, because their mandate is an important one, and clearly a lot of money and work went in to this campaign. Let is just serve as yet another warning to organizations that edgy isn’t ever always worth it.

Although maybe it’s all relative. What do you think? Some folks seem to dig this campaign. And I happened to really like the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Make Death Wait campaign, whereas some folks thought it went too far.

It set out to remind us that heart disease and stroke aren’t unique to men – women suffer from them as well. And they were creepy (as you can see, it weighs heavily on the stalker vibe). But, well, heart disease and stroke aren’t supposed to be funny and cute.

What are your thoughts on edgy charity campaigns? Do they smack of desperation? Or are they justified in getting attention by any means necessary?

UPDATE: Claire Kerr, who wrote the post on this topic on Osocio, laid out some incredible points to counter what I’ve written above. When I asked if it was too Pollyana of me to wish more ad campaigns (nonprofit and otherwise) didn’t rely on the “look like we’re being offensive, but really we’re not” angle, here’s what she had to say:

Yes — Because whether or not you like the ad is not important – what’s important is an ED on the news explaining that 2 in 5 people with this disease did not smoke. What’s important is a national conversation about whether or not we unfairly hold people who smoke accountable for their illness and the lack of funding for research here. Considering the bold & aggressive tone for social issue marketing in the US right now – this is a 2 on the scale of “1 to Bloodied Fetus”. RE: CAMH, “Defeat denial” is latest in a long stage of End Stigma work for CAMH – perfectly in line with Let’s Talk and hits all the right tones … And even with that backing there’s absolutely no way I can credibly say that CAMH’s posters are more direct, viral or shareable – seriously. You know I don’t care for Make Death Waits not because it pushes buttons but because it pushes the wrong ones, for me, it’s too “rapey”. The discussion about it became about women in bathing suits and stalker fear, instead of a discussion about heart disease. How edgy it is, is not my concern. Too often our conversations about social marketing focus on “morality” – Should they do this, should they do that? How will we “look” to our peers instead of the people we serve? The only objective any marketer should have is conversion. You can’t see that LCA ad without thinking about your own response to somebody with lung cancer. It’s spot on.

While I hold her argument is amazing, my first reaction to the LCA ad was actually “How dare you imply I blame individuals with lung cancer for their disease, that actually hurts me.” But I already had a different perspective on the stigma. I know from personal experience that smoking /= lung cancer and lung cancer/= smoking. So I suppose the ad’s not meant to change my behaviour anyway.

I’m still conflicted that ad campaigns set out to build buzz, but the buzz ends up being more about the campaign than its message (.e.g. EU Commission’s Science: It’s a Girl Thing). After reading Claire’s response, I’ve come around and agree that in the end, the message gets through regardless. Maybe I’d just like to see more campaigns where the message doesn’t have to compete with the campaign itself for attention.

(Did you see that, internet? People disagreeing online without descending in to a flame war?)

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2 thoughts on “#charityfail: Lung Cancer Edition

  1. I suppose that ‘Make Death Wait’ campaign was good because it made me cringe and feel ill when I watched any of the ads. Stomach-turning reality shoved in my face during commercial breaks of the news. Did I take any further action, though? No. I suppose I didn’t ever want to continue to experience that feeling while reading more on their website about how more people I know are at risk. Eesh.

    But that cat lovers thing? Yeah, that’s just weird. I have heard people say that “smokers deserve it”. There’s a far better way to advertise that other people get lung cancer. As a matter of fact, I heard a really touching, sad story about just that on This American Life recently that was much more effective. Guy has never smoked, guy gets lung cancer, all people think guy is a smoker and “deserves it”.

    • Fair – I didn’t take action after Heart and Stroke campaign, but I think of it often and it was the first time I saw heart and stroke as something for me to be concerned about as a woman.

      The Lung Cancer group has other ones – like the smug deserve to die, and the tattooed deserve to die, and hipsters deserve to die (jury’s still out on that last one –). So it’s not just cat-lady. And those are interesting anecdotes about the stigma of lung cancer. I suppose it’s more prevalent than I had thought! I wish they had gone about it a different way. Much less a “let’s make a poster that at first glance is offensive, to catch the eye, but then it’s ok because we tell them what we really mean by it” route, which seems to be all the rage.

      A pitch: Same image, but with the heading “Lung cancer’s good people” followed up with and follow it up with “it doesn’t discriminate” and go on to explaining how regardless of your lifestyle, smoker/non-smoker, athlete, anyone’s at risk. It’s not a *perfect* campaign, as calling cancer “good people” is problematic in itself. But hopefully the idea comes across slightly. A smidge.

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